90’s basketball x YNQ
For the last two weeks, the fundamental power structure of the NBA has been inverted. While the owners and executives are the true power brokers of the league, they have been rendered powerless by one man’s now broken silence as no one wanted to make any moves until LeBron had decided where he wanted to play next. There is no other player in professional sports who could bring all transactions to a virtual standstill by refusing to say a word. Now, LeBron has stated his intent to sign with Cleveland, returning to the team and city where he spent the first seven years of his career and the NBA can resume its business as usual. The reactions are pouring in from sportswriters and its effect on the rest of the league, but I am more intrigued by the thoughts of my friends and acquaintances from home, which for me, as well as LeBron, is Akron, Ohio and the so-called forgiveness being offered to LeBron from them and the power exercised by LeBron apart from the ever-present constraints of ownership.
I, like LeBron am from Northeast Ohio and will always consider it home no matter where else I may live. I was born just outside of Youngstown and spent the majority of my formative years living just outside of Akron in a suburb called Tallmadge. When LeBron became a national sensation in the early 2000s, it was an even bigger deal for all of us who lived in the area. This was not just an athlete who played for Cleveland that had come from somewhere else - LeBron was one of us. Even though we could not begin to fathom the fame and wealth that he would soon enjoy, we liked to dwell on what we had in common. In fact, I met LeBron once when he was a senior in high school at a college football game between Marshall and Kent State in 2002. I immediately recognized him and had him autograph my ticket stub. He seemed simultaneously immediately knowable and unbelievably unfathomable.
When the Cavaliers received the opportunity to draft him by winning the 2003 Draft Lottery, the euphoria was palpable. The local legend was now able to become our savior. I mean, it’s pretty much impossible to miss the Messianic overtones of the massive billboard that used to take up a whole block in Cleveland of LeBron throwing the chalk in a Christlike pose. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. While the Cavaliers had the most success they had attained in decades - perhaps ever - including their first trip to the NBA Finals, LeBron left Cleveland in 2010 to join the Miami Heat where he won two championships. But while he left the Cavaliers, he never really left Ohio. He still owned his house in Bath and devoted the majority of his charity work to local organizations within Akron. When he won the 2013 NBA Finals MVP, he made clear that he was “from Akron, Ohio, from the inner city” and was “not even supposed to be here.” Cavaliers fans may have felt betrayed as sports fans, but they could not have felt betrayed as Ohioans.
I remember the day and night of the Decision vividly even though I made a conscious decision not only to avoid watching it, but to leave the state altogether the night it happened. Before I left, I played pick up basketball with my friends and we discussed the night’s upcoming event and I told them that they must feel confident because there was no way that LeBron would leave Cleveland on national television. Of course, I wasn’t as convinced of this as they were and I did not want to be around Akron to witness the fallout if he did actually leave. That night, I drove a few hundred miles to North Carolina to see my then girlfriend and did not find out where LeBron had decided to go until I received a phone call from one of my friends while driving on I-77 South through Charleston, West Virginia. While I was put off by the manner in which LeBron decided to announce his decision to leave the Cavaliers, I was appalled by the reaction among people from my hometown. Videos of jerseys burning and angry rants filled my Facebook news feed along with status after status filled with bitter indignation regarding the purported betrayal. Of course, the ultimate expression of this was Dan Gilbert’s infamous letter in which he called LeBron’s departure a “cowardly betrayal” and a “shocking act of disloyalty” which “sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn.” The whole letter reads like a surreal blog entry written by a spurned lover who had every reason to be left behind.
Now, LeBron is returning home. He is the prodigal son. He is FOR6IVEN. This rhetoric is far more congratulatory and welcoming, but no less discomforting. LeBron is not an actual person in all of these renderings, but an object of praise, an idol that had been neglected and is now being returned to a place of prominence. Of course, all of our relationships with sports figures are inherently impersonal, but this faux-personal relationship with LeBron that Northeast Ohio has had could be the subject of several psychoanalytic studies. But could any Cleveland fan honestly claim that LeBron going to Miami was a bad decision? Do they really believe that LeBron could have gone to the Finals for four consecutive seasons and won two championships if he had remained in Cleveland? Honestly, who was the best player LeBron played with in Cleveland? Was it Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams, a rookie Carlos Boozer, an aging Shaquille O’Neal, Larry Hughes, Anderson Varejao or maybe even Ira Newble? The landscape was bleak.
When LeBron left for Miami, I think it resonated on more than simply an athletic level. Yes, he was and remains the best basketball player in the world, but this was the local hero leaving for sunnier skies. The problem is that such a leaving is no mere isolated incident, but emblematic of a mass migration that has occurred throughout Northeast Ohio in recent years. Akron’s population has dropped by nearly 20,000 people since the year 2000 while Cleveland’s population has dropped by nearly 90,000 in the same time period. There is a sort of stubbornness that defines Northeast Ohio in my experience that persistently screams at anyone willing to listen that we aren’t as awful as you think we are, and accompanying this is a simultaneous jealousy and resentment of all those who leave the region and this is most fully exemplified through the public outcry regarding LeBron James. It is hard to imagine that there are not thousands of people within Northeast Ohio who wish that they could have moved to Miami themselves, but are unable to due to the economic hardships which have overtaken the entire Rust Belt. Even though LeBron had been a millionaire for years by this point, it was this move that finally proved that he was not actually one of them despite their perpetual claim on him.
It is this claim on LeBron which bothers me the most. When LeBron left, people felt personally aggrieved. Now, with the prospect of his return over the last few weeks, the same people have acted as if LeBron owed them a return, a redemption story, a championship, but LeBron does not owe any fan anywhere a single thing. While I am excited to see Lebron alongside Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins, I remain uneasy about LeBron’s return. This notion of Cleveland fans ‘welcoming’ LeBron back and forgiving him of his (manufactured) transgressions sickens me. The Decision was a poor public relations move admittedly, but that’s all it was - bad PR. Even LeBron himself has said he would do it differently for years now, but regardless, I do not think that exercising one’s right to choose their place of employment - which honestly is all LeBron did ‘wrong’ - is nowhere near as repugnant as burning jerseys and writing paternalistic letters.
This is why I was shocked to wake up today to several text messages announcing LeBron’s return to Cleveland. It was simply impossible for me to fathom him working for Dan Gilbert again in light of that letter and his subsequent comments about LeBron not playing hard enough in the 2010 Playoffs. The prospect of a return seemed even weirder to me in light of the fact that LeBron, out of all NBA stars, had the harshest words regarding Donald Sterling’s racist rant. While Gilbert’s letter was not explicitly racist, it still overflowed with racial power dynamics that should make anyone uncomfortable. It read like something a slaveowner could have written the day after emancipation. I did not expect the young pieces on the current Cavs roster coupled with the wonderful redemption narrative to make up for all the abuse heaped upon him in recent years, but I was wrong and am definitely happy to have been so.
I genuinely hope that LeBron can bring a championship to Cleveland. It would be Northeast Ohio’s first championship since the Browns won the NFL Championship in 1964 and I would celebrate oh so heartily. While I currently live in Southern California, I am from Northeast Ohio and that is where my heart remains and I know firsthand what a championship would mean to that area, but it is the interim that troubles me. I still vividly remember watching the first game that LeBron played in Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat and the visceral hatred that enveloped the Quicken Loans Arena. I remember watching it in my dorm with a few friends and legitimately being scared that someone might try to kill him somehow. I did not find any thrill in the screams, but a genuine terror and hatred that horrified me. And now, when Cleveland plays their first home game this season, the screams will be just as loud, but they will be sounds of praise and adulation, sounds of joy and rejoicing. I’m just not sure these praises deserve to be heard or even acknowledged at all after these last few years.
@elfrid x The Chuck Mangione Quartet
1990 : Run TMC vs Nuggets
Rookies feat. Victor Oladipo
1996 : Yung Kobe